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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 47 back to contents
The RRF calls for the withdrawal of  the ELS programme a critique on the ELS guided reading videoJennifer Chew

Synthetic Phonics

Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching beginners which stresses, in quick succession,

1.         the learning of basic letter-sound correspondences (the letter ‘s’ stands for the /s/ sound, the letter ‘a’ stands for the short /a/ sound, the letter ‘t’ stands for the /t/ sound etc.)


2.         the learning of the skill of reading simple words by producing a sound for each letter and then blending or synthesising (hence ‘synthetic phonics’) the sounds into a normal word-pronunciation.

It should be evident, from the above, that children who are taught to read by synthetic phonics are taught to pay close attention to every letter in every word. They are not taught to attend just to initial letters or to guess at words from pictures or context.

Despite its good track-record in the classroom, its good research backing, and its common-sense appeal, synthetic phonics has been a Cinderella approach for decades in English-speaking countries. The favoured approaches have been ‘look-and-say’ and ‘whole language’, neither of which encourages detailed attention to within-word units (letters in written words or sounds in spoken words). ‘Look-and-say’ favours the learning of words as wholes, and whole language favours the use of picture cues and context cues for word-identification purposes, possibly with some attention to the first letter. With the National Literacy Strategy came assurances that phonics would be properly represented, and it was reasonable to assume that this would include synthetic phonics. Unfortunately, however, these assurances have proved rather hollow: the ELS video provides no clear illustrations of synthetic phonics in use, but provides many illustrations of teachers encouraging whole-language strategies which, from a synthetic phonics perspective, run counter to common sense and have little support from reputable research. This is particularly clear in the sections on Guided Reading in Reception, which will be the main focus of the present critique (see shaded section below). Other sections on reading are dealt with more briefly.

The ELS Video

This video aims to give guidance to teachers and classroom assistants on how to support the weakest readers in Reception and Year 1. It is due to be sent out to schools in the autumn term of 2001.

The first section is entitled Pilot Intervention Programme Key Stage 1 (Short version). Children are asked to listen for the first and last sounds in words - they are never asked to listen for all sounds, and the relating of sounds to letters is incidental and very superficial. The children move on to the sentence “This is a big bed”, introduced the previous day. We do not see anything which convinces us that the children could read these words if they occurred in any other context - it is possible that they have simply memorised the sentence from the previous day. Much is made of the fact that a sentence must start with a capital letter, end with a full stop and make sense: it is arguable that this kind of work on sentences is inappropriate unless children's word-identification skills are firmly in place.

At one point, the classroom assistant focuses on the word “big”: this would be an ideal opportunity to demonstrate synthetic phonics, with the children reading and spelling the word a letter and a sound at a time, but instead the assistant concentrates on just the first letter. This overriding emphasis on initial letters and sounds is a recurring feature of the video and is clear evidence that synthetic phonics is not represented. As indicated above, “synthetic”, in the phrase “synthetic phonics”, refers to the synthesising or building up of whole spoken words from individual letter-sounds. A word cannot be built up from just the initial letter-sound.

Section 2 shows Examples of Guided Reading in Reception. The children are evidently in their second term (spring term). The teacher, Andrew, explains that he has very different objectives for the two groups which we shall see.

As we consider the way in which Andrew proceeds with The Go-karts, we should bear in mind his statement of his objectives for this group: “I really wanted to have them working by themselves, reading individually and attending to the print, solving problems as they arose”. In fact, however, we see none of this happening because Andrew does far too much of the work for the children. For example, he reminds them of the colours of the go-karts and tells them what the first two words on each page will be: “When you're watching a race you say ‘Here comes...’” and later “I want to show you the trick of reading this book. Every page says ‘Here comes...’”. We note, too, that on several occasions he bends the book in such a way as to have the picture visible and the text out of sight: he is encouraging the children to “read” the pictures and not the text. We also note that the children keep referring to the go-karts as “cars”: this would not happen if they were “attending to the print” according to Andrew's objectives.

Andrew checks to see that the children know what to do if they ‘get stuck’ on a word: “Look at the picture and look at the word”  -  but he does not say how they should look at the word. When the children are invited to join in the reading, they do so half-heartedly and there is no evidence that they are actually reading  - Andrew has talked them through every page. When Junior gets stuck on a word, Andrew says “What could we do? What could we look at? Let's look at this page (pointing to the picture). What colour was that go-kart?”

Everything in this section illustrates a whole-language approach. Andrew repeats whole-language mantras and constantly encourages the children to use whole-language strategies. At no point is there anything approaching synthetic phonics. Moreover, Andrew is very far from fulfilling even his own stated objectives.

In considering the section on Lizard loses his tail, we should remind ourselves of Andrew's objectives for this group: he said “The early strategies that they have are really in place and are very sound, so I wanted to take them to a different level and work on fluency and phrasing”. Again, however, we see little of this happening in practice. Again, too, Andrew tells the children far too much about the book; this would not be necessary if their early strategies really were “in place” and “very sound”. He reads most pages for them, encouraging them to look at the pictures and prompting them heavily on the occasions when he tries to get them to identify words. For example, he reads “Here is the lizard” and then asks “What is he doing in the sun?” A child responds “Sleeping”, which illustrates the inadequacy of guessing from pictures as the word actually printed is “asleep”. Andrew pretends that “sleeping” is acceptable (“Yes, that's right”), but then slips in the correct word “ASLEEP”. He then says, in a lame attempt to bring in some phonics, “If we think about that word, what letter will we see at the beginning?...  ASLEEP?” A child seems to suggest ‘”an” or “en’ Andrew says that it's ‘A’, using the letter-name. From a synthetic phonics perspective, there is a lack of logic here: for one thing, if the children were genuinely looking at the printed word, as they should be doing in reading, they would be seeing the first letter and not needing to think about what it might be; for another thing, if they are thinking about the sound at the beginning of the spoken word “asleep”, as Andrew seems to have in mind, they will hear neither a clear long /a/ (as suggested by his use of the letter-name) nor a clear short /a/ sound. The episode illustrates something which occurs over and over again in the National Literacy Strategy materials: phonics is treated as an incidental exercise in the analysis of little bits of words (mainly beginnings) after they have been identified, if the teacher sees fit, rather than as a practical strategy which children can use in reading and spelling whole words.

We believe that this section of the video illustrates the mistaken type of thinking which has been current for many years and is being perpetuated through National Literacy Strategy materials. In our view (which we believe is in line with research findings and common sense), this type of thinking has caused literacy problems in the past and will continue to cause them in the future.

Section 3, Examples of Guided Reading in Year 1, follows a very similar pattern. The teacher talks confidently but actually very vaguely about how “it” (presumably the National Literacy Strategy) has clarified her understanding of how to teach reading. Like Andrew, she spends far too much time talking about the book (Frog and toad all year). It is interesting that in reacting at one point to a child's suggestion that one way of reading an unfamiliar word is to “stretch it out”, she gives a reasonable description of synthetic phonics: “What you mean is that you can say all the sounds in the word. You can look at the first part of the word and see if you can say the sounds in there that the letters are making, you can look at the middle part, and you can look at the end part. If you say all the sounds and put them together, you might get the word that way”. When children get stuck on words which would lend themselves very well to this approach (e.g. “melting” and “sank”),

however, the teacher suggests other strategies instead: with “melting”, she asks “What is the ice cream doing?”, apparently prompting the child to turn to the picture for help. With “sank”, she says “If something goes down, down, down, what do you think that word might be?” The child suggests “sink”. “Good try,” says the teacher. “Now it's not an /i/ sound, there's an /a/ sound there, so can you change that from SINK to.......?”, whereupon the child offers “sank”. If this teacher really believes that it is useful to “say all the sounds and put them together”, why does she not get the children to do exactly this with words like “melting” and “sank”?

In dealing with A book for Jack, the next teacher again encourages a lot of attention to pictures and little or none to the printed words. The book is apparently already familiar to the children. When we hear them attempting to read the first page, it seems that some of them are reading “went” as “want” (a common error among children taught to recognise words as wholes). Particularly striking is the section where Stephen reads “He put the baby book back” as “He put the tickle book back”. The teacher queries “tickle” and prompts him to look at the picture for help and to consider whether the first letter in “tickle” could really be “b” etc. Eventually she supplies the word “baby” herself. This rigmarole is enormously time-consuming and inefficient compared with the synthetic phonics strategy of attending to all the letters in the word from the start. A relative beginner might start by sounding out “baby” with a short /a/ sound, but his attempt would be much closer to the target word than “tickle” is, and the adjustment from short to long vowel sound is arguably much easier to make than adjustments based on picture and context clues (which this child clearly cannot make, even after heavy prompting). The video is in fact a good illustration of the fact that children very seldom get exactly the right word by relying on picture clues and context clues – they always need a teacher to tell them whether or not they are right. This does not encourage independence. By contrast, synthetic phonics does encourage early independence: the initial pronunciation of each word is always letter-based, and the only adjustments which children may have to make are minor ones (e.g. from “babby” to “baby” rather than from “tickle” to “baby”).


This video illustrates an approach for struggling readers in Reception and Year 1 which is poles apart from synthetic phonics and therefore, we believe, poles apart from the methods supported by research and common sense. The ELS approach must surely have been piloted in selected schools before being recommended for wider use: the results of any pilot studies should be made available, publicly or at least to independent researchers, so that proper comparisons can be made between the results achieved in these schools and the results achieved in schools which use synthetic phonics from the start. We urge that this video be withdrawn unless convincing evidence can be produced that such comparisons have been responsibly made and have shown the ELS approach to be superior. The evidence available to the RRF suggests that synthetic phonics is in fact the superior approach by a large margin, both for the initial teaching of literacy and for intervening with children who have fallen behind. We believe that this is a matter of serious public concern.

Editor’s comment:

The RRF has called for the complete withdrawal of the ELS programme. There are fundamental questions which need addressing here, starting with the need to compare reading results from different approaches in the first wave of early years teaching. We suggest that with correct literacy teaching in the first place, the picture of which children would require second or third wave remedial teaching could be entirely different. We have reason to believe that this ELS initiative has not been conducted with the high degree of professionalism and measuring that it warrants, and that many people are well aware that the ELS advice is ill-conceived.




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